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What theoretical perspectives underpin e-learning/TEL research?

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Gráinne Conole
9 January 2010

  • What theoretical perspectives are currently being used in e-learning/TEL research?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages of different perspectives?
  • Should we be exploring perspectives from other disciplines more? 
  • Do the technologies that have emerged in recent years and the ways that they are being used require new theoretical insights?

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Theory and methodoogy paper

Theory and methodoogy paper

added by Gráinne Conole


Juliette Culver
10:13am 14 January 2010

This sounds like an H809 essay question! I think one of the areas of confusion here though is what is meant by 'a theoretical perspective that underpins research' as there are lots of theories related to education that aren't theoretical perspectives that underpin research.

Kamakshi Rajagopal
10:57am 14 January 2010

I have been thinking that much of what is happening in TEL requires a particular kind of attitude from the learner towards learning and education in general, and that this attitude is very much 'discovered' through the wide use of emergent technologies.

To answer your last question, i think new theoretical insights are needed regarding the ways to cultivate this attitude in the learner. So maybe the focus moves from "how does learning occur?" to "how can learning happen"? Is this a kind of meta-level of learning?   

Gráinne Conole
1:15pm 14 January 2010 (Edited 1:23pm 14 January 2010)

Lol yes good point @Juliette- I really meant what theories are people using to design their research and interpret their results? For example alot of people are using Activity Theory as a means of describing and understanding the contextual factors involved in studies. I'm interested to know to what extend theories used in general educational research is being applied in e-learning and also what theories from other subject disciplines are being drawn on.

Gráinne Conole
1:25pm 14 January 2010

@Kamakshi interesting perspective! I was listening to Chris Jones talk about his research looking at learners and their use of technologies and one think that struck me from that was that he found that use of participatory tools (blogs, wikis) and virtual worlds was relatively low, the majority of students primarlly wanted access to materials and a means of communicating with other students and tutors...

Frances Bell
10:58am 17 January 2010

Thanks for this very useful paper Grainne.  I have been thinking about theories, research and educational technologies for the last couple of years, particularly in the context of a theory, connectivism, that has attracted much attention, interestingly amongst practitioners as well as researchers (here are some of my blog posts on the subject ).

In this discussion, I wanted to make 2 additional points about why thinking and research is changing.  There are two dimensions in which technology-enabled learning is changing/can contribute to change (though I agree with Chris Jones that is easily overstated).  They are both about changing and often expanding scope.

1. Institutional boundaries

As well as becoming more social, the use of technology in education is increasingly personal and beyond the control of the institution so the old 'provider-centric' approaches are even less appropriate.  Also, learning may be informal and related to hobbies/work.

2.Discipline boundaries - Not just education

Even where the development/implementation of specific technologies to support learning is a valid concern for educational institutions, these technologies form part of wider systems that may include administration, marketing, student support, etc.

This increase of scope/ complexity is very familiar to those of us from a "soft' Information Systems background and I see many of the research methodology/paradigm debates being re-run in TEL.

I very much applaud your work on inter-disciplinarity and the need for research, as I think we need a very good empirical base of research in a TEL context but also a good grounding in related literatures where technology has been applied in equally complex contexts.

Connectivism has an 'interesting' theoretical base, and little evidence of it being researched in use.  And yet, it seems to help practitioners apply technology to learning and teaching contexts.

Will Pollard
10:23am 18 January 2010 (Edited 10:27am 18 January 2010)

I am trying to link this discussion to a Deming group and also a project on Experimentality. I am interested in the cycle of Plan - Do - check / Study - Act.

Warning fair, I am probably writing a story for OhmyNews about the Learning Technology show at Olympia later in the month. One aspect that interests me is the connection between academic knowledge and the "mode two" knowledge of the organisations with stands. This includes companies like Adobe with a series of blogs and Adobe Labs on interfaces for collaboration and other topics. Also Towards Maturity, connected with BECTA. I am a bit lost on the various UK organisations involved. Last year at BETT there was a stand for LSIS the Learning and Skills Improvment Service, based on two previous concerned with quality and leadership / learning. I can't find academic theory from the new combination. Any clues welcome. What about BECTA? Do they publish or link to anything regarded as research?

Free Booklet from Towards Maturity


Centre for Excellence in Leadership

website search defaults to LSIS

QIA (Lifelong Learning)


Through the  Experimentality project I have become aware of a view on a "dark side" of mode two knowledge. Not sure what this is about. Have started a topic on Facebook so may reach a wider take on this.

Dark Side

Not off topic yet. Could contribute to a research discussion.

Will Pollard
12:02pm 19 January 2010 (Edited 12:04pm 19 January 2010)

Finding out a bit more about Mode Two knowledge. Fairly sure this is relevant. e-learning is applied knowledge for problems.

Changing Modes
New knowledge production and its implications for higher education in South Africa
Andre Kraak (ed)

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa's

refers to


so that's enough PDf to study for a while but other links welcome


Gráinne Conole
2:17pm 22 January 2010

A parallel debate is also going on in the Networked Learning hotseat - have added a link. I am to synthesise the discussions from the two spaces.

Gráinne Conole
11:39am 24 January 2010

Some really insightful points Frances. I agree the angst debate in current TEL research is one that has been seen before in other disciplines, its inevitable I think in a relatively new resarch field, its part of the process of becoming a more established field.

Interesting your point about connectivism being picked up by practitioners but not yet empirically based. I think the reason its being picked up is that it 'speaks' to practitioners, has a resonance with what they are interested in - the same thing happened of course with Wenger's Community of Practice ideas.

Frances Bell
8:59am 25 January 2010 (Edited 2:56pm 25 January 2010)

There is a difference with Wenger's Community of Practice though.  As well as the case studies from the 1991 Lave and Wenger book, Wenger did a rich study from US insurance industry that informed theory development (moving from LPP to dualities for example see and Wenger's 1998 book). There is less empirical base for the 'online' and distributed aspects of CoPs but some e.g. Hildreth and Kimble.

Community rather than CoP has been appropriated as a term within Connectivism and seems to be regarded as different from the groups vilified by Stephen Downes (Siemens' views are a bit different).  That is getting me thinking about openness too  - open/closed might be usefully explored as a duality - hmmmmm!

Gráinne Conole
11:04am 25 January 2010

Yes agree Frances the empirical bases for Wenger's work was/is important will be interesting to see if we can get more equivalent for online CoPs in due course. My concern is that some of the research in our area uses CoP (and connectivism for that matter) as a mantra without really subtantiating it in the actual research. The term 'community' is mega problematic - Rebecca Galley has been struggling with this and related terms in terms of us trying to get a handle on the types of activities occuring in cloudworks - what defines a cloudworks community? is there such a thing? how can we measure its development? etc!

Giota Alevizou
11:35am 25 January 2010

@ Grainne @ Frances: Great points about communites of practice, connectivism and I should add communities of Enquiry models by Garrison, Anderson et al. that have reasonance with the discussion and, I think, with theoretical advancement or further empirical investigation. There is some empirical basis by Garrison and Arbaugh (2007) as it was used as a tool to conceptualise technology enhanced, learning processes in a Higher education context. It would be interesting to explore its extensions within the whole curriculum or learning design and implementation trajectories (including assignments and assessment styles). Again I think it can perhaps make a useful contribution to the link between practioners and researchers. 

A second strand that I think would be interesting to connect to TEL is that by Knowledge Forum pedagogy and technology developed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter (2006). Knowledge building, as elaborated in their  chapter, represents 'an attempt to refashion
education in a fundamental way, so that it becomes a coherent effort to initiate students into a knowledge creating culture. Accordingly, it involves students not only developing
knowledge-building competencies but also coming to see themselves and their work as part of the civilization-wide effort to advance knowledge frontiers.'  Their framework proposes means for students to connect with civilization-wideknowledge building and to make their (virtual or open) classroom work a part of it. Our Carnegie Mellon partners at Olnet (see specific project) are applying within specific OER contexts, but I think there is more scope for implementation within TEL. 

Finally, I think there is scope for connecting projects in eScience, eSocial Science, eHumanities (and eScholarship in general) with elearning and teaching practices as a way to increase impact and wider engagement. I am looking into it at the moment ...

mary thorpe
12:00pm 25 January 2010

Thanks for your paper Gráinne on Theory and Methodology in Networked Learning. I read your accounts of 'theory' and was reminded of another one - just about the loosest definition of theory you could find I think, but it might be useful. It's from Schatzki, Knorr Cetina and Von Savigny (2001) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge.

'Theory means simply, general and abstract account...This definition of theory obviously departs from both the once dominant conception that ties theory to explanation and prediction and the more colloquial and still prevalent notion that theories are hypotheses. Systems of generalizations...that back explanations, predictions and research strategies are theories. But so too ...are typologies of social phenomena; models of social affairs; accounts of what social things (e.g.practices, institutions) are; long as they are couched in general, abstract terms.' p3/4

While this wouldn't satisfy a scientist, it might be a useful catch all approach for what we're talking about here.

I share the concerns people have expressed about use of the term 'community'. For me it is often misused in the context of CMC research - so often we have a community of interest in a successful forum associated with an course of study, rather than a community of practice, in the sense that Wenger discusses it, as shared engagement, mutuality and discourse in common.

For me the benefit of inter/multidisciplinarity is that we learn things we wouldn't have done by keeping a broad approach open. I think education has a tendency to cohere around approaches currently seen as desirable, and to ignore if not to vilify approaches using a different paradigm. Key to learning from a perspective we may not share or wish to use ourselves, is that research reports/papers are open about what their paradigm and methodology is and clear about the methods used. That way we may be surprised - positively - by findings from that perspective.

Picking up your point about evaluation - I would agree that the key determinant is the social context, in that evaluation is expected to start with the questions set, often by a funder or stakeholder, rather than research/literature. But this doesn't stop an evaluator from making connections with that literature, and from interpreting findings in relation to it, so that evaluations can also make a contribution to knowledge, if they do so. Research may make a claim to knowledge of course, but the fact that it draws on the literature, doesn't mean that it has succeeded.


Gráinne Conole
12:30pm 25 January 2010

Hi Mary - I like that definition of theory, nice and pragmatic and I think it does align closely with our focus of research in general.

Also agree that CoP is misused when what is really happening is more around a transitory community of interest. As I mentioned in another posting Rebecca Galley is currently working out how we define activity here in cloudworks and the term community just doesnt work.

I also agree there is a need to adopt an open approach - only by making as explicit as we can our position and justification of our theoretical and methodogical approaches cna we hope to take the field forward and build on each others work. Of course new technologies offer a wealth of ways to support this, the question is are we as a community prepared to take the risk of being truly 'open'??

Rebecca Galley
3:16pm 25 January 2010

Ok, I'm going to be really brave and add a link to my *tentative* Indicators of Community table. I think for me the issue is not just - what is a community and how do we measure it (which is a killer question in itself!) but also what makes a community innovative, productive, engaged etc. I have been looking at Engestrom's theories of Expansive Learning for this which I think complements rather than contradicts CoP theory. It still places emphasis on the historicy of a community as being key (and I would agree that sustained debate, discussion, learning is important) but helps demonstrate the value of cross-boundary communities in promoting this 'buzz' and suggests ways in which this kind of activity can be fostered and supported.

Gráinne Conole
3:33pm 25 January 2010

Excellent thanks Rebecca - very useful starting point for discussion!

Giota Alevizou
7:07pm 25 January 2010

Thanks Rebecca,

I wonder how, and what, the ideas of 'relational networks' can be added to the idea of the cross-boundary communities, communities of interest or put simply to 'object/ topic/ content oriented sociality' as additional definitions. If the idea of the network learning is to perist within TEL, then I think there is a scope for adopting methodological tools stemming from social network and content analysis (Actor-Network-Theory is a interesting one, but often difficult to apply empirically).

I recently came across an article by Delhrio and Fischer (2007) from the HELIOS consortium on the re-definition of elearning territories. It may seem obsolete to talk about territories in a world that boundaries are blurring...But it makes a useful mapping contribution taking into account, societal diversification of ‘learning patrimonies’ (POLE, 2004) or learning contexts surrounding learning experiences. It may be useful divising/revising theories based on such contexts? This also builds upon Frances' earlier typology and Mary's comments.

Antonella Esposito
9:20pm 26 January 2010

Even if they are not ‘dominant’ theories in current discourses, I wander if traditional theories of distance education can still have some influence on theoretical perspectives serving research in networked learning. Otherwise, if we should merely consider research in distance education as a precursor of that focusing on elearning/networked learning and currently as a parallel and independent strand of studies.
Firstly I am thinking of theories that emphasize industrialization of teaching, in particular the fordist/neo-fordist/post-fordist debates, in which certain models of production in education match as many learning models. In fact, central to the debate between Fordists
and post-Fordists are changing views about how learning occurs. The Fordist
approach is based in behaviorism learning theory in which knowledge is delivered
to the learner. The constructivist approach to learning in which individuals
give meaning to the world through experience underlies the post-
Fordist position. The post-Fordist paradigm implements a decentralized, democratic administration that focuses on the consumer and implies a high responsibility of teachers to respond
to individual needs of students. What is the production model emerging from open education’s instances?

Secondly, I refer to theories that emphasize independence and autonomy of the learner, such as the theory of transactional distance by Moore. Can the analysis of the concept of ‘distance’ help enlighting the ‘networked individualism’ of the current learners?

Indeed, someone keeps on building on this theory. For instance, I read a study by Jon Dron (2007), ‘Designing the undesignable: social software and control’, in which he just draws on transactional distance to elaborate a theoretical foundation to explain the potential of social software for learning.

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